13 August 10 – Feast Day of Cassian of Imola, Ill-Fated Writing Teacher

A quick little moral tale before we get to our main story

Saint Cassian was a 4th century schoolteacher, who “taught [his students] the basic elements of literature, that is, how to read and write.” Unfortunately, Cassian’s activities drew the ire of the local judge who, alliteratively, was a “partisan of the passions of the apostate emperor.”

For any still-summer-vacationing teachers, the ominous news is that the angry judge “could find no means more appropriate to take vengeance on Saint Cassian than to abandon him to his own students.” (shudder!)

Cassian was stripped and bound, and some two hundred of his students  did their worst – or, depending on your interpretation, their best, for one telling of his martyrdom records that the students “carved their initials carefully on his flesh.” (emphasis added)

A good story seems to lurk here, morbid though it may well be: Cassian taught 200 boys to read and write: After carving their initials into their master’s flesh, what did they go on to write?

And Now, Our Main Story:

Each December some half a million people converge on Guadalajara’s convention center to celebrate that perennially endangered species known as the printed word. La  Feria Internacional del Libro, or FIL as it is more handily and affectionately known, brings together publishers, authors, and book lovers from all over the (chiefly Spanish-speaking) world  for a week of exhibitions, conferences, readings, and convivially crowded hobnobbing.

For some two decades now, la FIL has recognized one country or another as its Invitado de Honor, affording them the chance to spotlight their literary and artistic culture.  Last year la FIL tweaked this tradition a wee bit by extending its Invitado invitation to the City of Los Angeles, which, in turn, invited four dozen writers to travel to Guadalajara as L.A.’s cultural ambassadors.

While a number of well-known and widely-read authors – Ruben Martinez, Yxta Maya Murray, Dagoberto Gilb, Geoff Nicholson, Jonathon Gold, and Alex Espinoza – traveled to la FIL, at least one fairly unknown author also got the nod – that would be me.  Sort of like Ringo being chosen once upon a time to bring up the rear for the Beatles.

A highlight of our Guadalajara sojourn was, of all things, the hotel.  Not that there was anything the least bit distinctive about it, but because each morning, upon entering the café for breakfast, one focused not on what to eat, but with whom to eat it.  Writers who principally knew one another by by-line alone got to chat over café con leche with writers they – we – admired.

One thing that came up repeatedly in conversation was how charmed and enamored we all were with our host city.  Guadalajara has wonderful colonial and beaux arts architecture, parks hither and thither,  several museums and community arts spaces, and some of the most congenial and polite citizens a large city could possibly boast.

It felt, one thought, like a rather enhanced, civilized version of L.A.

And that’s where the thought began to germinate, to propose a small anthology of writers’ reminiscences about our time in Guadalajara, as sort of valentine not only to our host, but also to the National Endowment for the Arts (which funded our trip) and to the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles (which organized it).

My sweetheart friend Veronique de Turenne, late of the LA Times and still of the “Here in Malibu” blog on LAObserved.com, enthusiastically volunteered to co-edit the submissions, which filtered in from a dozen fellow authors.  David Kipen, who organized the L.A. writers contingent, agreed to contribute a cheery, pithy foreword; and Veronique and I each had stories about Guadalajara we wanted to contribute. Veronique’s fun tale, which ends the book, inspired its title, Waiting For Foreign.

The essays include a pair of lovely, nuanced pieces: Alex Espinozas uneasy meditation on his complicated relationship with the land of his birth; and Michael Jaime-Becerra’s sweet ode to his father’s alternating power and fragility.

There are some light-hearted pieces as well: Dagoberto Gilb’s stream-of-consciousness take on Guadalajara, the publishing biz, and Cesar Rojas, which ends on a slightly bitter rant about racism; and Ruben Martinez’s reggae-foxtrot love song to Guadalajara and all things tapatío.

I had taken dozens of photographs in Guadalajara, and as I graphically reworked them in Photoshop, these began to complement the stories in the book. I found a website – Blurb.com – which enables users to design and create their own books, through its downloadable program, and which the website will then print on demand.

Admittedly, it felt a little ironically complicated to be self-publishing and printing-on-demand a book inspired by an international book fair that relies on the participation of dozens of publishing houses, particularly at a time when no one knows what the future of publishing holds or what the workable model will be.

Perhaps this eight inch square, eighty-page book, labored over for months, and then uploaded in a half-hour and printed – “on demand” – and delivered directly to my door less than a week later, is one of those models for the future.  .

I only know that it offers a creative person the liberating opportunity to gather and organize thoughts and insights however one best sees fit into an actual physical book – that still palpable, valued object.

Whether anyone else cares to read, to purchase, or to own that creation remains to be seen.  But thus has it ever been with writing. May it ever remain so.

Advertisements

2 April – Feast Day of la Santa Musa

CBS Reporter Martha Teichner before my painting of "St. Stephanie"

My wife and I were recently in Barcelona (more on that another day), immersed in its many-layered histories and beauty, when I received a surprise email from a producer for the great weekly television program CBS Sunday Morning, inquiring if I would care to be the subject of a profile for an upcoming broadcast.

Timed to air on the thematically-relevant Easter Sunday, April 4th, this segment would feature my “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” project, wherein I had explored the multi-cultural heritage of Los Angeles, via its 100+ streets named for saints.

Of course I was ecstatic – and grateful – and, as soon as we returned to L.A., I began preparing for the film crew’s visit – which was an adventure in itself, as my studio had been hastily converted into a storage facility when our home’s sewer line irrevocably broke, just before our trip to Spain…. Ah, Best of times, Worst of times….

Nonetheless, I was able to re-establish peace, space, and reasonable tranquility in time for our interview.

I had long esteemed reporter Martha Teichner as one of the most thoughtful and cultured of reporters on Sunday Morning; so I was doubly pleased that she was selected to interview me.  She was thoroughly engaging during the nine hours we spent together; insightful and empathic, and the pleasant  source of sweet stories of interviews past.

Crew on location, KGB Gallery, producer Brian Healy at right

Producer Brian Healy hovered helpfully in the background throughout the day, offering spot-on suggestions and tips to enrich the  segment that will ultimately appear on the show (if it appears, of course).

Each time All the Saints gets a little exposure like this, that I get interviewed or asked to speak on the project,  provides me a much-appreciated opportunity to better understand the project myself.  These ten years of researching, writing, exploring, and painting the City of the Angels’ saint-streets and street saints add up to a significant portion of my time here on this blue marble, and probably constitute one of the most thoughtful, if meandering, meditations on how I view the world.

I am grateful to CBS Sunday Morning for the opportunity to explore this project again, and to share it with others. I hope those of you who view the segment, on televised air, or in some online version, will get something useful and reflective out of it as well.

All best. Blessings.

Shooting the Saints

1 September – Feast Day of Good Saint Giles

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

It’s a pity there are no streets named for Saint Giles in L.A.; he’s an attractive character. 

His chief visual attribute derives from the animal-lover’s legend that there was a hind who was his dear friend (yes, sorry, that was intentional), and who nourished him with her milk.

Giles was living the hermit’s life off in a cave, and the hind was his only visitor. One day a royal hunting party spied the hind and followed her to the mouth of the cave. They fired an arrow into the cave, but the arrow struck Giles’ hand rather than his hind, as he protected the latter with the former.

The iconic depiction of this event transposes us from the interior of the cave to just outside where, in a composition not unintentionally echoing the Nativity, the king kneels before Saint Giles as he shelters his hind.

The Medieval mind would find much there to contemplate, ambling from Giles’ cave to Bethlehem and back.

But another of Giles’ legend attracts, for it connects (at least in my rambling mind) to some of what I’ve experienced during the months that All the Saints has been on display at the Autry Museum, here in Los Angeles.

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

We designed an alcove in which two of my paintings are displayed as though they were in a small chapel; there is a shelf on the side wall with a pen and little cards that feature the All the Saints frame; visitors are invited to write on these and leave them on the community altar.

I didn’t really know what people would write – or if they actually would use them – but over two thousand cards have been written on and left among the battery-operated votive candles.

They speak to a wide range of concerns people harbor, from jobs and healthcare to the war in Iraq (sounds like the election, doesn’t it?); but they do so, almost every time, on a personal, intimate level that evokes a person’s real and troubled soul.

Some of the most charming are written in a child’s hand; many express grief over a lost pet – Giles would understand, I’m sure.

But I mentioned another legend about today’s saint: it is known as “The Mass of Saint Giles” and was depicted in Van Eyckian detail by the artist known as the Master of Saint Giles. Supposedly, Charlemagne had committed a sin of which he was so ashamed that he could not being himself to utter it in confession. An angel delievered a note describing the confessed sin to Saint Giles as he was conducting mass: the sin was forgiven.

While the legend may convey several important lessons – no sin is unforgiveable, even great people are capable of great error – it also underscores the benefit that can be derived from getting something troubling out of your head and onto a scrap of paper (Ah! the benefits of writing!) and setting it out there, anonymously perhaps.

On some level I like to think this community chapel installation in my exhibition addresses this need; and in so doing, it levels the playing field by showing how similar we all are in our hearts’ core.

Published in: on 2 September 2008 at 4:38 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

30 August – Feast Day of St. Fiacre, the Misogynist

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

The fall of 2000, when I began the rich journey through the soul of L.A. that would become All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I was researching – with an eye to portraying – the streets named for saints in and around Downtown Los Angeles.

It was in this way that I found myself one morning in the lobby of a drop-in shelter on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row; and it was at that moment that I noticed – how could I not? – the lovely young woman in the photo at left.

Jevona welcomed my request to photograph her, and as I did, she began telling me, unbidden, her life story. It proved a sad, difficult tale, with avaricious men attempting at every turn to take advantage of her. As she told me several times, “If I would sell my body, I wouldn’t be homeless.”

That fall I connected Jevona’s situation with the legend of Saint Agnes – Santa Ynez – whose street I needed to portray. One of the aspects of All the Saints’ first year of of which I am most proud is the positive effect my painting of Jevona as Santa Ynez had on this frail young woman – Ah, if only that could have lasted.

The troubled and troubling ways in which men have, and still, historically abused women is beyond lamentable, thus important to remark and to overcome.

Therefore I bring this relationship up today, for today – Saturday – is the feast day of a particularly unpleasant misogynistic saint (so-called), Fiacre, of Ireland. I recommend taking a few minutes to read his tale from Jacobus de Voragine’s great Golden Legend.

The gist of it is that he felt himself wronged  – “full sorry and wroth” – by one woman and then, after solitary reflection, decided to take revenge on all women.

As Jacobus tells “he made his prayer to our Lord that no woman should never enter into his church, without she be punished by some manner of sickness. ”

His awful prayer, it seems, was granted: one woman lost an eye; the foot of another “swelled by such manner that all the leg, knee, and thigh of it was grieved with sickness.”

Nor were these isolated instances: “many other miracles have been thereof showed.” It seems also a continuation of his demonization of women, that he is invoked against syphilis, venereal disease, and sterility.

As we struggle for gender equality and for honest and open relationships between women and men, let us recall today all the Santa Ynezes who have struggled – and struggle still – against all the Saint Fiacres.

28 August – Feast Day of St. Augustine, son of Santa Monica

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine, one of the chief theologians of the Church; writer and philosopher – and, in his youth, a rabble-rouser, carouser, and his mother’s great and constant sorrow.

a petition left in my gallery

a petition left in my gallery, Summer '08

His mother, Monica, was a widow who, like so many mothers among us, raised three kids – two daughters and a son – alone. Augustine showed great promise, yet got himself into trouble, distancing himself from his upbringing, ignoring his mother’s please to change.

His conversion to the writer and philosopher we know across the centures – the author of City of God and Confessions – was a cumulative act Augustine himself attributed to his mother’s unceasing love, concern, and faith in his ability to change. And it was because of her unyielding love, despite her son’s misdeeds, that Santa Monica was canonized as a saint.

In my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I connect the narrative arc of Augustine’s and Monica’s relationship to the troubled lives of mothers and sons who negotiate the dangers, attractions, unquiet, and pain of the street.

As I wrote:

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes, “In what abyss was I buried?  And you extended … toward me your merciful hand, to bring me out of that profound darkness…”

 

Here in the City of the Angels, where so many mothers weep for sons who are victims of violence or perpetrators of violence; where so many families are connected by prisons and hospitals, courtrooms and morgues; it is that merciful hand, like the optimistic long-suffering love of Santa Monica, that can help us out of the darkness, that can help us to heal.

another petition left in my gallery

another petition left in my gallery

 May we all be healed.

23 August – Feast Day of Santa Rosa de Lima

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Yesterday morning I went out into our garden, my mind preoccupied with the violence that haunts our home in Mexico.

Seated on the patio steps, I was drawn out of my funk by an unusual three-note trill emanating from somewhere beyond the bouganvillea.

I was searching for the source when suddenly it appeared – its form somewhat like a jay’s, but devoid of brilliance  – on a telephone wire: within brief seconds it was gone.

So suddenly had this songbird disappeared, I was still gazing in its direction when a monarch butterfly drizzled into view from stage right, below and before the bouganvillea.

Startlingly, the songbird reappeared, pouncing from out of view; plucked the butterfly with its tweezer-like beak; and set about enjoying breakfast on my studio roof.

A quick exploratory poke or two; and the narrative took another unexpected twist: the monarch arighted herself from the asphalt and ambled its uncertain way, slightly rougher around the edges.

The songbird watched for what seemed eternal seconds, and then took off; exit stage right.

Tonight as I write this, family, friends and villagers are marching for peace and justice through Creel, back home in the Sierra Tarahumara, an eternal week to the minute after thirteen of their neighbors were machine-gunned into near-oblivion by the janjaweed of the drug lords.

I choose to take yesterday’s butterfly, universal symbol of rebirth, as a sign that we the people will eventually prevail.

18 August – Feast Day of Saint Helen

Detail, The Old Moon Remembers, by J Michael Walker, 2001

Detail of "The Old Moon Remembers", by J Michael Walker, 2001

All the long 101 way home

Tonight

All the long 101 way home:

 

The moon,  

Large cream-gold

Old-friend of calm.

 

Pulling onto the driveway,

Behind silhouette trees

A horned owl asserts herself

 

Hooting

Four-note verses

Unhurried, soft  

Against freeway’s wild wash.

 

– Composed tonight, upon coming home.

Published in: on 17 August 2008 at 10:06 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , ,